Grief and movies don’t tend to go particularly well together. That’s not to say that the depressingly universal emotion is unworthy of cinematic study. However, more often than not, grief is treated in one of two ways in movies. Either it’s depicted as a lot of sullen starring into the blackness – often by a gravestone and definitely in the rain (see ‘Batman v. Superman’) – or it comes with mental breakdowns that lead to all sorts of wacky behavior until the grief-stricken can have a good cry and finally move on. ‘Demolition’ falls squarely into the latter camp.
Thanks to the pairing of a sunken-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal and director Jean-Marc Vallée, the movie actually follows this well-worn path to interesting effect for a little while. Unfortunately, as is Vallée’s way (see ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ or ‘Wild’ for more), the movie eventually reverts to the very brand of melodramatic sentimentalism that it dodged for two acts. Sadly, it’s becoming this director’s specialty to hint at reinventing old tales for an hour before falling into clichés in the final stretch, and it’s starting to get rather irritating.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Davis, one of those walking zombie investment bankers that we’ve all seen in far too many movies. You know the type – those guys who have given their lives over to easy suburban dreams and greed, only to lose their souls in the process. This one is shocked awake from his living slumber by a sudden car crash that takes the life of his wife. He doesn’t even know how to react at first, coldly accepting his wife’s death and then freaking out when a bag of M&Ms doesn’t fall freely from the hospital’s vending machine. He tries to go back to work at his office as if nothing happened, when his former father-in-law (Chris Cooper) instructs him that now is a good time to take apart his life and re-evaluate things.
Unfortunately, Davis takes that advice all too literally and starts smashing and taking apart things in his home and office as some perverse sort of therapy. He also writes a letter to the vending machine company about the M&M issue and hears back from a service rep (Naomi Watts) who proves to be a kind ear and a new obsession. Davis starts hanging out with the woman and her teenage son (Judah Lewis) in between rounds of smashing stuff and reverting to adolescent behavior as a form of growth. Cue the life lessons.
For as much as all that might sound rather pat, for a while ‘Demolition’ feels surprisingly lively. Vallée and Gyllenhaal treat the material as a means of bizarre and gently dark comedy. The film flows with the unpredictable nature of its protagonist, diverting past obvious storytelling paths to more interesting, dark and oddly comedic places. Gyllenhaal, now well past the “lonely teen” period of his career into the “wacky weirdo” portion, excels in portraying a character that the film lovingly observes from arm’s length. Whatever the hell is going on in that guy’s head is clear to the actor but never to the audience, and he delights in diving into all the strange and self-destructive scenarios the film sets up. Vallée shoots all this playfully, dipping in and out of the protagonist’s perspective freely as a means of toying with viewers. It feels very playful and strange, coming across as a rather painfully accurate portrayal of grief which affects everyone in wildly different ways that are impossible to predict.
Sadly, that delicate portrayal of grief that Vallée delivers so well is but a momentary lapse in the character’s sanity. He’s not reborn as some strange manic teenager allowed outside to play after decades of repression. He’s merely a sad soul in a self-destructive cocoon whom the film needs to transform into a butterfly. (Eww! Gross!) That happens not through some tedious “Learn to love again” plot with Naomi Watts, but through a bonding session with her outcast son. Of the two cornball directions to take the story, that’s at least the lesser of two evils and allows for some strange bonding scenes before Davis figures out he’s a grown-up. Nonetheless, it’s very disappointing to watch this weird comedy about grief turn into yet another fluffy tale of redemption with all the ponderous glances into the distance and rousing bursts of music that suggests.
It’s the same trick that Vallée pulled in his last two films and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stomach. Sure, it’s nice that the filmmaker can find an hour worth of unexpected material before reverting to formula. That’s certainly better than pure cheese, but not by much. It requires the audience to watch an interesting movie betray itself before their eyes, which is almost as frustrating as watching crap all the way through. (At least crap doesn’t pretend to be anything else.) Hopefully, someday Vallée will find a project that allows him to retain a cracked and unexpected vision all the way through, because viewers will soon lose patience if he keeps playing pretend with projects that ultimately prove to be little more than feel-good Oscar bait.